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The Best and Worst Stretches for You, According to Fitness Trainers

Not all stretches are created equal. In fact, there's several risky ones you should never do.

Young man in the Cobra yoga pose
Stretching is important -- but not all stretches are safe for everyone.
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Most of us don't make enough time to stretch -- especially since stretching has so many benefits. Not only is it great for your muscles and joints (and feels so good), but stretching also releases endorphins to help you relax, releases tension and corrects bad posture. 

I'm notorious for having the best intentions about stretching some every day, but usually I only get around to a longer stretch session a few times a week. While you don't have to stretch for hours a day, everyone does need to work on flexibility a bit in order to avoid pain and injuries. There are a ton of stretches and flexibility programs out there, but not all stretches are created equal. In fact, there are some stretches that trainers downright avoid or tell people not to do because you can potentially hurt yourself doing them.

Sometimes stretching can feel a bit uncomfortable (especially if you are less flexible) but you shouldn't be truly in pain while stretching. Pain is one sign that a stretch is not right for you, or is too intense, but there are also specific stretches or stretching habits that you should always avoid, whether they cause you pain or not. Keep reading below for stretching dos and don'ts from two certified trainers and fitness experts. 

Stretching dos and don'ts 

Don't: Stretch cold muscles

"Stretching helps you avoid injury, increase range of motion, decrease muscle stiffness and release tension throughout the body," says ShaNay Norvell, certified trainer and author of Stretch Your Stress Away with ShaNay. However, timing is important since stretching "cold" muscles, or muscles that are not warmed up properly, is not a good idea. 

When it comes to stretching, cold muscles are considered risky since "you can potentially strain, pull or tear a muscle if forced into a stretch without being warmed up," says Norvell. She likes to compare stretching cold muscles to a frozen rubber band. "That rubber band, if immediately pulled or tugged, could snap or break. However if a rubber band is warm it can be tugged or pulled and move with greater ease. The rubber band would still have limits, however it would have greater range of motion warm," she explains.

"At a minimum I would recommend clients do a 7- to 10-minute walk on a treadmill, elliptical or stationary bike" before stretching, Norvell says.   

A young woman doing a lunge stretch pose outdoors

A walking lunge stretch is one example of a dynamic stretch you can do once you're warmed up.

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Do: Try dynamic stretches

Norvell recommends dynamic stretches, or stretches that you do in motion, at the beginning of your workout (after the warmup, of course). "These stretches will typically be to prepare you for your movements in your workout," says Norvell. 

One of the benefits of dynamic stretches is that they are more controlled movements that "don't force the body beyond its range of motion using bouncy movement," says Heather Marr, certified trainer. Examples of dynamic stretches include arm circles, walking lunges and leg swings, according to Marr.

Don't: Do ballistic stretches 

Ballistic stretches are a type of stretching that uses "rapid, jerky repetitive movements to produce a fast, high degree of tension inside the muscle," says Marr. She doesn't recommend ballistic stretches for most people since they can be forceful and make you push past your own range of motion, which can lead to muscle or tendon injuries.

"Examples of some common ballistic stretches include bobbing up and down to touch your toes, the ballistic butterfly stretch and the [ballistic] trunk lifter. I don't recommend any of these stretches for the average person," says Marr. How you do these stretches is key, since both the butterfly and trunk lift can be done safely as a static motion instead of as ballistic movement. 

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Do: Static stretches after your workout

Static stretches are stretches that you hold for a period of time, while the muscle is extended, says Marr. Examples of static stretches include an overhead tricep stretch, a wall bicep stretch and a stacked-leg glute stretch.

"I would recommend [holding the stretches for] 20 to 30 seconds," says Norvell. You should do static stretches when your body is warmed up, ideally at the end of your workout. "The end of the workout is a great time to stretch because typically your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments throughout your body are warmed and ready for safe movement," she says.

The 3 stretches you should probably avoid

While everyone is different, the stretches shown below are examples of moves that trainers advise most people to avoid due to potential pain or injury risk. 

A group of young women doing a side split stretch

A split stretch can be dangerous if you're not warmed up or trained to do them properly.

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Split stretch: Even if you've been able to do a split in the past, Norvell doesn't suggest trying to jump back into it. "There are many people who have fond memories of being flexible and doing the splits with ease," she says. However, just because you had that flexibility and range of motion at one time doesn't mean that you necessarily kept it or will keep it.  "There are some people who will try to go into a split just to see where their flexibility is. This is still dangerous without warming up thoroughly," says Norvell.

A young woman doing a middle split stretch

The straddle stretch is difficult for beginners and can injure you if you're body's not ready for it.

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Straddle stretch: The same logic as for a split stretch applies to the straddle stretch. "This stretch is putting both the groin, hip flexors and all inner thigh muscles in position to tighten to protect itself if your body isn't ready. This can leave you in a worse position than when you started," says Norvell.

Hurdler stretch: Norvell says the hurdler stretch should be saved for people who are actually preparing for a hurdler race. Outside of that, she says the stretch can be dangerous. "I have seen gym members over the years or people preparing to run in the park lay down in the hurdler position. This is typically one leg forward and one leg bent backwards.  This is dangerous if your knee and hips are not properly aligned and can cause severe muscle strain," she explains.

Norvell's recommended stretches to do instead of the ones above:

Want more fitness recommendations? Try these eight workouts that trainers recommend you try and these exercises that will help you relieve stress

More for your wellness:

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.